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Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

top gear heads south

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The BBC TV show Top Gear has recently come in for some major criticism over a new “special”: a trip to the North Pole. The criticism has revolved around the environmental impact of driving three cars to the North Pole, especially if they leave their customary trail of parts behind them. If you haven’t seen the show, and don’t want to know what happened before you do, stop reading now: there are spoilers coming.

I’m prepared to overlook the environmental concerns, for the simple reason that the show is unlikely to inspire many more such jaunts: it was expensive, complex, and hardly easy on anyone involved, even those in the three cars. I came away with a general impression of “we did this, so you don’t have to, and we even got it on HD Video”.

After many scrapes, including one that required several parts and left a pool of diesel on the ice, the car with Clarkson and May got to the North Pole first, before Hammond’s dog sled (which he wasn’t driving). The truck needed a backup team of Icelanders to help them, who pulled off tricks such as re-inflating a tyre with a bottle of butane and a lighter. That’s alright, then isn’t it? It’s just TV, right? Not so fast.

I’m hardly a Geographic geek, but the shot of the truck arriving at the North Pole raised more questions. They showed the truck’s GPS screen hitting the mark: N78˚35’7” W104˚11’9”. The North Pole is at N90 latitude, of course, and all the Longitudes at once. What’s the difference? According to the Great Circle Mapper, the difference is 792 miles, or 1275 kilometers. You can see the positions on a map, here.

A-ha, I hear you saying: they must have gone to Magnetic North, then? Yes, I thought of that, but it still doesn’t add up: throughout the program, they always referred to the North Pole: no mention of the word “magnetic” that I can recall, though I could be wrong about that. There’s another problem: they didn’t actually go the North Magnetic Pole.

The latest coordinates I can find for the location of the North Magnetic Pole are those from 2005, which were estimated at 82.7°’N 114°4′W. This is quite a long way from the show’s “North Pole” location: 307 miles, to be exact, according to another Great Circle Map. To be fair, however, the North Magnetic Pole has been near the location they used in the show: in 1994, according to the this map and other historical figures I looked up.

How does that compare to how far they actually went? They started at Resolute, in Nunavut, which is at 74°41’40.27″N 94°50’23.64″W. I know they didn’t go in a straight line, but if they had, another Great Circle Map tells me how far the crow flew: 308 miles.

In other words: their trip to the North Pole took them almost exactly halfway to the North Magnetic Pole. Come on, Jeremy: care to talk your way out of this one? If you were following the 2007 Polar Race route, you didn’t say anything about that…  :roll:

Written by brian t

July 25, 2007 at 11:12 pm

plane thinking

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At the beginning of 2006 I speculated that I would be doing less travelling. That suited me, simply out of general consideration for the environment. I didn’t need news headlines , or the European Union, to tell me that air travel is not good for it. So, I imagined, 2006 would be a quieter year for me, with fewer flights.

The reality turned out to be very different:

  • April = 4 flights: Dublin <-> London, Dublin <-> Lisbon
  • May = 1 flight: Dublin -> Copenhagen
  • June = 5 flights: Copenhagen -> Dublin, Dublin <-> Amsterdam <-> Lyon
  • July = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • November = 2 flights: Dublin <-> London
  • December = 4 flights: Dublin <-> Dubai <-> Bangalore

That makes eighteen (18) flights in one year; eight of those for work-related reasons, the other ten for no good reason. By way of comparison, I calculate that I took nine (9) flights, half this year’s tally, in my first 25 years. Must do better this year – the environment needs me to cut back on the flying!

Besides, the romance has gone: RyanAir is working hard to make flying as exciting as taking a bus, and even though I didn’t fly with them last year, Aer Lingus are not that far behind, out of competitive pressures. I think I’ll take the ferry next time I visit the UK.

Written by brian t

January 5, 2007 at 8:23 pm

global warning

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Finally: some scientists are looking beyond ways of slowing down or stopping global warming, and are starting to address the questions of how humanity will cope. I’ve asked, in these pages, why people continue to build their homes in low-lying areas that are subject to flooding, when a little geographic knowledge will let them understand just how dangerous it is.

In most cases, of course, people do not have much of a choice: they need to be somewhere, within the borders of their country, and when their country is e.g. Bangladesh – most of the country less than 10 metres above sea level – they can assume they will be affected by floods even before global warming kicks in. A sea level rise of just one metre will submerge an estimated 10% of Bangladesh – already one of the most densely-populated countries in the world.

Once again, we come back to the question of population: people producing more children than their country can support. It doesn’t make sense even at this time, far less if you are to look at the known problems facing any particular country in the future. Once again I find myself saying: if people don’t take care of themselves and their futures, by planning their families, Mother Nature will take care of them.

Written by brian t

September 4, 2006 at 4:43 pm

a wind over the world

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Oh, for a fat pipe at home. No, not a blunt green one, I mean a fat Internet pipe. I appear to have found my “killer app”: NASA World Wind. This is a program for viewing satellite imagery from different sources, and it’s all free.

Today (and yesterday) I had my laptop at work, occasionally viewing parts of the world. The way it works is: you start off with a fairly detailed globe, and zoom in on any part you like. Depending on the part of the world you’re looking at, the available detail varies, with rural or wild areas having the least detail, the USA having more, and then there’s the USGS Urban Area Orthographic data. This has some shockingly detailed images of US Cities: never mind “I can see my house”, more like “I can see your bald spot”. It also contains elevation data, and you can tilt the viewpoint to give a realistic 3D view of the scene.

There is also the “Rapid Fire MODIS” function, which lets you look up selected imagery of events, ranging from phytoplankton blooms to dust storms, fires and hurricanes. Some amazing shots, such as sand from the Sahara getting just about everywhere in that hemisphere.

Speaking of bald spots: I finally ditched the hippie look last Saturday. I have no idea what a good hairstyle for me would be, so I got something acceptable by telling the barber what I didn’t want:

  • not bald, or short-back-and-sides: I want to keep some length overall. The skinhead look appears to be “the norm” where I work, and I’m not buying it. Where’s the fun in that?
  • no hair in my eyes. I even tried gel to help with that problem, but it didn’t last, so I ended up with congealed logs of hair in my eyes;
  • no, no, no! Not a Mullet! I don’t mind losing the long back, if I avoid that particular pitfall.

The result can be called a civilized rock star look, with short “bangs”, some top, and a medium-length back. Boring, I suppose, but I can’t see it unless I look in a mirror, and it’s not often I do that.

Saturday was another of those “good days” I’ve written about before. Technically, it started on Friday evening, when I arrived home to find the camera parts I ordered, but I did the repair in daylight the next day. It was slightly fiddly, I had to use a found screw in one position (since I lost the original and none were supplied), but that was enough of a hassle to make the succesful result all-the-more satisfying. My camera is whole again, with almost no visible damage, and I don’t have to remove half the bottom screws to replace the batteries any more.

What do you do with a good mood? You ride it over normally unpleasant tasks, like housekeeping, so I got out the vacuum cleaner, etcetera. Then shopping, a meeting with friends for drinks, then finally a late movie: Kikujiro. Slow, but rewarding: I ended up recording it, and watching the last third the next day. I had to call it a day, and a Day it certainly was, with a capital D.

Written by brian t

May 31, 2005 at 5:35 pm

a new hope?

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Before reading further, please read this article, by Stewart Brand, from Technology Review. Brand recommends having a rethink with regard to four controversial topics affecting us today: population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.

The general thread running through popular responses to these four subjects is alarmism: assume the worst. Nuclear power is the classic example: the assumption that increased use of Nuclear Power lead to another Chernobyl? Well, there was a time when trains were the suspect. (40 miles an hour? You will not be able to breath!) Aircraft were doomed to fall out of the sky on population centres. The Internet will lead to people losing their jobs, and will be abused.

Well? Accidents have happened. Trains have crashed, planes have fallen onto populated areas. The Internet has fallen foul of those predictions. Do we stop flying, or do we learn to do it better, more safely? Do we work to make the Internet better? So it can be with nuclear power: Chernobyl was a poorly-designed, poorly-maintained, poorly-managed reactor: nothing about it was typical, representative, or justification for the avoidance of nuclear power generation.

To me, these questions are related to the Tragedy of the Commons, as described before. The article I’ve linked to covers the wider background to the issue, and suggests a possible solution: intelligence. In the original article, linked from there, the section “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable” covers some of the ground I have, but this latest article appears to paint a more rosy picture than before. If the world’s population growth peaked in 1968, it’s been declining for my whole life so far. Good: fewer, and better (educated) people are what this world needs.

In the same way, a useful technology must make good use of the commons, not waste it. For nuclear power, this means we need real solutions to the problems of radioactive waste, which can ruin our common air and water supplies. Population, urbanization, etc? People who pay for what they take, not rely on welfare handouts. As we have seen, that starts with population, too, on a family scale. Urbanization is partly the result of too many mouths to feed, and partly the response to the city’s powers of wealth generation. It’s not a zero-sum game – we can do all these things better than they were done in the past.

But most important of all, I believe, is intelligence, fostered by education. People can do the right things for themselves, if they know how. Knowing what you should or should not do, which actions are beneficial and which are harmful. It’s not a guaranteed fix: just look at the number of SUVs on the road, driven by people deluded into thinking the increased fuel consumption is justified by improved safety. (One word: no).

It will all come out in the wash, as my mother used to say – see, I was listening – but do we have time?

Written by brian t

April 11, 2005 at 4:22 pm

Global Dimming

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An interesting BBC documentary tonight is discussing the “Global Dimming” phenomenom, after new data suggests that the amount of solar energy reaching the earth’s surface has fallen by 10-30% since the 1950s.

The culprit is pollution, of course, which (scientists suspect) was implicated in serious famines in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. So we should simply cut out pollution, right? We already are doing a lot about pollution, and surely we should do more? Can we guess how much difference this would make? After September 11, 2001, all aircraft in the USA were grounded, and a few researchers noticed the immediate difference it made to the air quality and the colour of the sky. (A year later, on September 11, 2002, few planes were in the air, as a mark of respect. I personally noticed how clear the sky was over Dublin, and took a few photographs for my sky portfolio – see the image gallery. )

What researchers found was: from September 11-13, 2001, the absence of aircraft, and the cleaner air that resulted, meant an increase in average temperature of over 1°C; a huge difference to see from a change to one factor over so short a period. In Europe, thanks to regulations, pollution levels have fallen, and temperatures have risen. This documentary paints an alarming picture, one in which the only way to avoid an environmental catastrophe is to stop the use of all carbon-based fuels, pretty much immediately. In other words: we’re all screwed.

Written by brian t

January 13, 2005 at 9:00 pm

reverse gear

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A wise person once said: the only difference between men and their boys is the size of their toys. The BBC Top Gear gang seem determined to demonstrate this maxim in no uncertain terms. In previous editions, the guys have played “car darts” and “car bowls”, using whole cars and a gas-powered cannon of the kind used in movie car stunts. This week they borrowed a Boeing 747-400 from Virgin Atlantic, and used it to test how well various cars resisted crosswinds. “Not Very Well” is the answer, in the face of crosswinds like those from just two of the 747′s 55,000 lb GE Turbofans. At last they’re not afraid to make fools of themselves.

After bragging that he’s acquired one of the 28 Ford GT40s that will be sold in the UK, Jeremy Clarkson was subjected to a typical car park situation: the car’s doors overlap on to the roof, which means he can’t get in if there’s another car parked less than two feet away. (Cue shots of his rear end on the steering wheel, unable to turn around.) The way he drove while testing it, the car did about 4 miles per gallon (mpg) which, by their calculations, isn’t enough for Jezza to get from home to the Top Gear studios – just 76 miles – on one tank. Not that he cares: he’s been licking Ford’s boots since he tested one last year, and now he’s the cat that got the cream.

Aren’t I awfully enthusiastic about cars for someone who can’t drive at all? Just let me get settled, with a workshop of my own, and a few ideas I have bubbling around may end up on the road. They involve electric (or hybrid) cars, where I don’t think current DC motor models are efficient enough at getting power to the road: there are A.C. concepts I learned about years ago that are not being used today. I have some ideas for putting those into practice, but I can’t say any more until I actually try them.

Written by brian t

July 18, 2004 at 9:28 pm

cycling dublin

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I’m at work, but not for work. Last week I bought a second-hand mountain bike from a guy in the same building, who was selling it on behalf of someone who left last month, so it was a real bargain. I’ll ride it home after this, my first experience of riding in Dublin. I waited till Saturday because I didn’t want to ride it in rush hour traffic if possible, and because I wanted to buy a helmet first. I am that kind of rider in general, but the need for bike safety has been drilled in even further since I moved to Dublin.I have only ever had one major cycling accident, and that was in 1991 and not even on a road, but in a shopping centre car park. I was taking my usual shortcut, but someone had cordoned off one section with a chain, the bike stopped and my face hit the bike. It had gear levers that stuck straight up, so I ended up with a large cut on my chin and two front teeth that were missing chunks and eventually had to be bridged.

The Dublin authorities seem to make some nominal attempts to cater for cyclists, following much the same pattern as I saw in London: where the roads are nice and wide, there may be cycle paths, but these tend to start and end abruptly, sometimes leaving a cyclist surrounded by trucks at dangerous intersections. The Dublin Cycling Campaign (DCC) has a Cycle Tracks page that covers this – also, BBC News has an article on cycling in London, which also discusses the problems with cycle lanes I see here too. According to DCC figures, 75% of cycling accidents in the Dublin region have involved heavy goods vehicles (trucks), many on the heavily-used routes along the Quays to and from the ferry terminal to the UK. I think this is why Dublin City has very few cycle couriers compared to London or New York.

I never saw any actual accidents, but on at least three occasions I saw the aftermath, with paramedics crouching on the road around some kid who’d been knocked flying or dragged under the wheels. Type “Dublin cyclist accident” into Google to see what I mean – there are a few Dublins in the USA, but nearly all the search results refer to Dublin, Ireland.

Since I moved house last November, I no longer walk home, but in the two years I did so, I saw some pretty shocking scenes involving “The Cyclists of Dublin”. By “The Cyclists of Dublin” I don’t mean just anybody who rides a bike in Dublin, but a particular breed of (mostly) young males who seem determined to live fast, die young, and make ugly corpses. I’m justified in calling them “The Cyclists of Dublin” because a) there’s something about their behaviour that is peculiar to Dublin, and b) there are so many of them around.

My “favourite” incident occurred about 22:00 one night in autumn, a moonless night. On my former route home from work, I used a pedestrian crossing on a fairly large street, 100 yards from the main N11 route south of Dublin. I crossed with an apparently clear road and a green pedestrian signal, but when I was halfway across, I heard someone shouting “Watch Out!” I stopped dead, and a cyclist narrowly missed me, shouted “I got no brakes!” and kept on going, down the hill towards the main road. From what I could see of him, the cyclist was a young male, in black clothes and hat (but white face), riding a black bike with no lights or reflectors, with no brakes (he said). I’m sure he stopped at the main road, but I didn’t wait around to see whether it was a controlled stop, or whether another vehicle stopped him the hard way.

Then there was the old guy riding a rickety bike, struggling up the hill near my offices, with a 5-foot (1.5m) step ladder strapped horizontally to the back carrier of his bike. There was quite a queue behind him, including buses with passengers yelling at him, heads stuck out the windows. Lights and Helmets are a rarity, as is any additional reflective clothing. I won’t talk about the drunken cyclists, young and old, I’m sure you can imagine what it’s like in the home of Guinness.

At one point, I considered nominating The Cyclists of Dublin for a Darwin Award, but I don’t know if they give out collective awards. (I saw plenty of nominations for groups of people, but no awards. I can no longer access the site, since our firewall guardians have it pegged as “tasteless”, although I disagree. I even think that reading about the innumerable ways in which human stupidity results in self-selective evolution should be mandatory for kids in their last few years of school, especially in the USA.)

The routes I could take to work have far too much traffic for safety during rush hour, so I intend to use the bike for recreational purposes only, never for getting to and from work. My plan is to get up 1/2 hour (or more) earlier and have a mad dash along the seafront every weekday morning, while the traffic is thin. Let’s see if I stick to it.

Written by brian t

April 20, 2002 at 3:07 pm

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